Santa Barbara is known for many things—the beautiful Spanish-style buildings, the sunny beaches, the famous residents (Robb Lowe, Cat Cora, Oprah). But recently the city and its surrounding area have become famous for something else: fantastic wine. In the past decade, Santa Barbara county has become arguably the most exciting wine region in the United States. With five distinct AVAs, the West Coast’s only east-west transverse mountain range (the Santa Rita Hills), and a supportive environment in which the best winemakers collaborate rather than compete, the area produces everything from bright sauvignon blancs to rich syrahs, and even some unusual sparkling wines.
It used to be that you had to drive around the county or book a pricey tour to enjoy all of this vinicultural bounty. But in the past few years, many of the best wineries have opened tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara. Now you can try many local wines just by taking a leisurely stroll. Here are seven of the most interesting tasting rooms in town.
1. Au Bon Climat
2. Margerum Wines
3. Santa Barbara Winery
Many of the city’s tasting rooms are clustered in the Funk Zone, a rehabilitated industrial zone near the beach. One of the biggest is Santa Barbara Winery, which is also the oldest winery in the county. Started in 1962 by Pierre Lafond (who has since opened another winery, as well as restaurants and shops, in the area), it was the first winery to open here since prohibition and had to use grapes shipped from northern California—until Lafond also planted the first vineyard in the region, in 1964. These days the winery makes a wide variety of wines, from the chardonnays, pinot noirs, and syrahs the region is best known for to less common varietals like langrein and primativo. Their white wines are made just behind the busy tasting room, and on weekends you can try wines like their Great Oaks sauvignon blanc, which has citrus blossom aromas and hints of grapefruit, at tables set up among the casks.
4. Pali Winery
Just across the street is the tasting room for Pali Winery, which opened in 2005 and specializes in pinot noir. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and large patio, the spot feels like a cross between a traditional tasting room and a wine bar and is a favorite place for locals who want to grab a glass and hang out for a bit. Try a flight of pinots to learn about all the ways this one grape can be used, from the Huntington, a medium-bodied wine that tastes of ripe red fruits with a hint of smoke, to the Durell, which has a complex, smooth flavor with hints of plum and black currant. Then grab a glass from the winery’s Tower 15 label, which makes a wider variety of wines, including a delicious, fruity rosé.
5. Riverbench Winery
A block away is the small, comfortable tasting room for Riverbench Winery, which specializes in pinot noirs and chardonnays from the winery’s vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. The tasting room offers flights of five different chardonnays or pinots, and it also offers a flight of its champagne-style sparkling wines—some of the very few sparkling wines being produced in the county. There’s the Cork Jumper blanc de blancs, which is bright and crisp but has a surprising smoky bacon flavor on the finish; the blanc de noir, which has a hint of licorice on the nose and a rich flavor of pear, apple, and lemon; and the demi-sec, which has hints of peach candy and a surprisingly light finish.
6. The Santa Barbara Wine Collective
7. Jaffurs Wine Cellers
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